It seems that all news, whether it be on television, online or in print, has been related to COVID-19. Most new developments in medicine are related to the pandemic, such as the lack of benefit of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment of the disease or the ongoing positive work regarding treatment with dexamethasone (a steroid) and use of remdesivir.
But what about non-COVID-related medical progress? These advancements are not talked about quite so much anymore. Here are some recent developments you might have missed:
1. The rise in use of medical foods. This is already an $18 billion-a-year industry in the U.S. Not supplements or drugs, these nutrients are somewhat in between. These foods are sometimes used to treat such problems as Alzheimer’s disease, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved these foods as treatment for only rare metabolic disorders. The bigger use has been for conditions such as celiac disease and low-protein foods to help people with chronic kidney disease stave off dialysis. The keto diet is another example and a trip down the supermarket aisle will find dozens of products geared to that crowd.
2. Taking blood pressure at home. After doing telehealth visits for the last several months, I have seen a surprising number of people who have not checked their blood pressure in months. A recent article points out potential benefits of using a home device, including a possible reduction in the use of medications needed to treat hypertension. White-coat hypertension, when BP is high only during office visits, is less likely to be treated if readings are uniformly low at home. It is also a great way for you and your doctor to pick up untreated hypertension if you are getting unexpectedly high readings with your own cuff. It is important to check your blood pressure the right way. Use an automatic upper-arm cuff while in a quiet room while sitting up in a comfortable straight-backed chair. The cuff size is important, as undersized cuffs can artificially raise blood pressure. They are inexpensive and bells and whistles such as Bluetooth are not necessary. I have often recommended the Omron BP devices, which are reliable and inexpensive.
3. Cell phones might help in treating cardiac arrests. In a Danish study, where cell phone owners were equipped with an app alerting them if someone in the community had a cardiac arrest, bystanders with the app were able to decrease arrival time by first responders by 42%. Citizen responders located up to 1.1 miles from possible out-of-hospital cardiac arrests were dispatched to start CPR or retrieve an automated external defibrillator until paramedics arrived.
4. Coronary artery bypass and risk of opiate addiction. In a recent retrospective study in JAMA, 10% of people who were prescribed opiates for pain control after having bypass surgery or valve surgery were still taking opiates more than three months after their operation. Being prescribed opiates at discharge in higher doses was directly related to becoming dependent. The use of opiates prescribed after this surgery was surprisingly high, especially in women, in this time of more awareness about these risks.
5. A diabetes drug looks as if it may help prevent both heart failure and diabetes. It has been known that dapagliflozin, or Farxiga, can help prevent heart failure. This is important because cardiologists have treated this problem for years with more traditional medications, and new helpful medications have been slow to come along. Now, it appears that this drug might also decrease the incidence of diabetes by 27%. This is especially important in view of another new study that showed that the likelihood of starting an expensive newer drug such as Farxiga was 29% lower among Black people and 49% lower among Native Americans. Of note, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes is higher among minorities, at 12% to 15%, versus 7% in whites.
There is a reason why most medical news in 2020 continues to be about COVID-19, as the pandemic has changed our world. But other research has been postponed and is just getting restarted. Performing large, international trials amid coronavirus lockdowns has been a challenge for researchers, and many trials were paused during the pandemic. Getting non-COVID-19 trials restarted needs to be a priority. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical problems have not taken a vacation.
David Becker is a frequent Inquirer contributor and a board-certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. He has been in practice for more than 25 years.